By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally for Fast Company)

“Transmedia storytelling” has become a common phrase in many media industries circles. But what does it look like for B2B?

The phrase “transmedia storytelling” has been widely adopted in media/entertainment circles in the past few years. Originally used by Marsha Kinder, the concept was explored in-depth by Henry Jenkins in his 2006 book, Convergence Culture, and subsequent work. In short, the concept looks at a connected story told over multiple media formats.

Originally, transmedia storytelling was most passionately studied and adopted in relation to entertainment properties. Jenkins explores franchises like The Matrix to illustrate it in Convergence Culture. As one of his graduate students at the time the book came out, I applied the concept to in-depth explorations of professional wrestling and soap operas. And a wide range of industry practitioners began to think about transmedia storytelling as a way to supplement the narratives of television shows and films, as a way to market the launch of a new story world, as a way to resurrect or keep alive a narrative between installments of primary texts or after its primary text has ended, and so on. By 2010, the Producers Guild of America had come to consider a “transmedia producer” a new official credit in the field.

Meanwhile, people started applying the “transmedia storytelling” approach to marketing and corporate communications, starting with Grant McCracken back in 2005. Meanwhile, Faris Yakob began mapping out what “transmedia planning” might look like in 2006. Today, there is no shortage of marketing conferences or conversations that end up with “transmedia” being woven in somehow.

In order to drive a more serious consideration of what transmedia storytelling means for marketing/advertising/public relations, the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California recently launched a new initiative called the Transmedia Branding Research Group. They kicked it off by bringing in more than 35 different people for a full day of brainstorming on what “transmedia branding” might mean.

We started the day talking and thinking primarily in terms of so-called “consumer brands.” But, as the day wore on, I joined Burghardt Tenderich and a few other colleagues to pose the question of what “transmedia” means for a professional services firm or other B2B company, where storytelling in the entertainment sense might not be a major focus but where relationships stretch across multiple media touchpoints already.

The Lab has decided to make transmedia storytelling for business-to-business brands one of their primary areas of focus, an endeavor in which I look forward to participating. As that effort gets underway, here are my initial thoughts about what “transmedia storytelling” in the B2B world really means. In short, I think B2B transmedia storytelling can be most powerful when it:

  • Is built on real-life relationships. Hill Holliday’s once suggested that the difference between B2B brands and B2C brands is that B2C brands typically have to use their storytelling to create the illusion of “brand personality” or of a relationship between the product/company behind the product and the customer. Meanwhile, the vast majority of B2B customer relationships are built on direct interaction between human beings at each company. The concept of “transmedia,” then, should often be focused on extending these relationships which already exist into new realms.
  • Has the advantage of having its story world “set” in the real world. Much like the world of professional wrestling unfolds 24/7 as a fictional story world within our “real” world, the “story” of B2B companies similarly unfolds in real-time: spanning across news releases and digital content from the company, coverage in the news media, experts from the company participating in industry events and in industry publications, those experts’ participation in social media, etc.
  • Focuses on the people behind the “brand” of a company. “Transmedia” for B2B companies gains power by focusing on how the company’s marketing, research, and products/services intersect with the experts who drive their business. Often, then, subject matter experts at the company become the key “characters” in the transmedia story of the B2B brand-which makes these representatives’ visibility especially important.
  • Demonstrates the thinking and expertise which inspires the company’s products and services. In building an overall narrative about a B2B company, the focus is on the expertise, not the products of that expertise. Situating the company’s commercial offerings within that passion and knowledge is key for telling a story beyond selling products.
  • Puts an emphasis on the importance of internal collaboration and external continuity. Of course, several of these types of activities have long been a major part of B2B marketing/communications, but thinking of them not only as “storytelling” but also as connected starts to reframe how the company thinks about its overall reputation and the way its communications connect to one another. It also helps connect parts of the company (HR, marketing, customer service, sales, investor relations, governmental relations, etc.) that might not regularly interact if the company’s various communications aren’t thought of from a “transmedia storytelling” standpoint.

I’m looking forward to playing some small role in brainstorming with the Annenberg Innovation Lab on these issues more deeply in 2013, but I feel the concept of “transmedia storytelling” holds much promise in helping B2B marketers think more deeply about how they connect their marketing and communications efforts and better serve the audiences they seek to reach in the process. And I look forward to thoughts from any readers as we further hash out what B2B transmedia storytelling means.

(For more on transmedia storytelling as a concept, see Jenkins’ and “Seven Myths about Transmedia Storytelling Debunked”.)

[Image: Flickr user Zach Rathore]

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